How to Safely Dispose of Unused Medications

Take the Time to Do It Right

Pills on medicine cabinet shelf.
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It happens for a variety of reasons. You end up with a medicine cabinet full of expired or unused arthritis medications or other types of drugs. This is considered a toxic form of household hazardous waste by the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency).

Proper drug disposal is an environmental issue. As with any household waste, the disposal method chosen can have a direct effect on safety and the health of the environment.

Most people strive to be responsible. Know your safe options. Learn how to dispose of your unwanted medications properly.

  1. Should You Flush Them Down the Toilet?

    I know we all have done it. Experts say however, this method may have potential harmful effects on the environment. Disposal via the toilet takes your drugs into the local sewage system. Modern water treatment plants are not fully designed to deal with medication disposal. The long-term health risks posed by consumption of even minute quantities of these medications in drinking water and the full extent of environmental damage remains unknown.

  2. Should You Pour Them Down the Sink?

    This is no better than flushing them down the toilet. They still end up in the same place. It's even worse if your home uses a septic system. Experts say drugs can leach into the local water table, eventually coming out somewhere, such as a nearby lake or stream, or even worse -- out onto your own property where pets, livestock, or wildlife could be at risk.

  1. Should You Throw Them in the Trash?

    Safety experts strongly discourage throwing them into the trash where children or pets can find them. Your trash will eventually make it to a local landfill, where your medications could still have the potential to leach out. Many municipal or local trash services now have local household waste facilities where you can safely drop off your medications for incineration. Call your local trash service for options in your area.

  1. Should You Return Them to Your Pharmacy?

    This is a good option if your pharmacy will do it, however, pharmacies are not required to take back your unused medications. Some pharmacies and drugstore chains do sponsor regular "clean out your medicine cabinet" drives where customers can return old, expired or unused medications, supplements and other over-the-counter products. Call your local drugstore or pharmacy for options in your area.

  2. Should You Return Them to Your Doctor?

    This is another good option, however, just like pharmacists, not all physicians or doctors will do it. Some may hesitate. Some may not be fully prepared to safely handle the process. Call ahead to see if your rheumatologist offers safe medication disposal methods.

    What to Consider

    Consider all your options for safer, environmentally-friendly disposal of your unused medications. When you explore safer options expect to hear "Why don't you just flush them down the toilet?" Just because this method is still common practice does not make it the most responsible or safest practice. Bear in mind that proper medication disposal is still an emerging environmental issue. Even experts and officials differ on what should be done about the problem. Your disposal options can and will vary by your location or region. If you must dispose of your unused medications in the trash, which is still better and safer than the sewer, you may want to place a little water into solid medications or solidify liquid medicines with a little kitty litter, sawdust or flour. This may help keep your medications from being taken accidentally by a child or pet.

    Also, the newer biologic drugs are injectable which means there is a needle to dispose of properly. Don't just fling it into the waste basket. Use the biohazard container provided with the drug and follow instructions.

    The Bottom Line

    A little persistence, preparation and planning will be worth your effort. Your best option is to find out if your area has periodic drug recycling events, such as the National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, or to locate your nearest household hazardous waste facility.

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